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Literary Theory and Criticism: Unlocking the Classics

Literature is the art of expressing oneself by seizing the power of language. It has been perceived and used as a source of knowledge for millennia, and people may view it as an escape from the real world and a trip into the realm of fantasy. Given that literature has such a wide scope and an enormous impact on people, it is not surprising that the history and theories of literature are studied and debated. In order to have a better understanding of the characteristics of a literary work or genre, the knowledge of literary theory and criticism provides a great deal of benefit. Thus, the first step that a reader should take to gain a new perspective on reading should be to understand that there are at least two main ways to analyze a literary work: one is literary theory, which "provides a rationale for what constitutes the subject matter of criticism—'the literary'—and the specific aims of critical practice—the act of interpretation itself" (Brewton, n.d., p. 1). The next step should be to learn about the beginning of literary criticism, which can be done through an examination of the classical period. The general concept of classicism refers to a particular aesthetic style that began in ancient Greece and Rome. An understanding of classicism is not limited to literature—it includes the general concept of art. Classicism in literature refers to an approach to writing that values traditionalism, formality, and restraint. A literary piece that did not meet the requirements of these values was criticized by classicists, and thus the first known practice of literary genre criticism was born. In order to better understand the concept of classicism, theories that are associated with philosophers such as Plato, Horace and Aristotle should be examined.

Plato on Censorship

Plato, presumably born in 428/427 or 424/423 BC in Athens, philosopher and founder of the Platonic Academy philosophical school, is one of the most influential people for those who have an interest in the arts and academics in general. Through this intense interest, he marks the beginning of the literary theory tradition with his masterpiece The Republic, becoming one of the most important figures of literary criticism of all times. In terms of his effect on philosophy and education, his ideas are crucial, given that he taught philosophical doctrines that nowadays are known as Platonism, which at his time also influenced great other philosophers such as Aristotle. Even though in his works Plato did not focus mainly on systematic literary theory as Aristotle did, "his consideration of philosophical issues in several of the dialogues leads him to reflect on poetry, and those reflections have often set the terms of literary debate in the West" (Leitch, 2001, p. 33). The Republic, in which Plato states his criticisms of literature, is still a notable piece of work and it is examined by many critics today, and his contributions to later criticism are so notable that there is a theory called Platonic criticism, based on his ideas.

Figure 1: “The School of Athens” (Raphael, 1509-1511).

In the Republic Plato explores the nature of justice, morality and the concept of what is for him an ideal society. According to him, the ideal form of government is a "philosopher-kingdom" ruled by morally upright individuals who are powerful in politics. They are philosopher-rulers who use their wisdom and knowledge to govern the city-state justly and effectively.

In addition to investigating the essence of truth, knowledge, and the human soul in the Republic, Plato also touches on literature and argues in favor of censorship or even banning literary works, especially in the 2nd, 3rd, and 10th books of the Republic. In his book Plato on Poetry (1977), the Senior Lecturer in Classics and Ancient Philosophy at the University of Bristol Norman Gulley discusses Plato's description of the poets' subject-matter as the human conduct in its moral components. The poets' assertion that they understand what moral appeal is seen by Plato as the most important component of their cognitive claim. Plato’s most essential criticism of poetry is mimesis, which means "imitation". Plato believes that poetry and other forms of art are imitative in how they attempt to depict the world of the senses rather than the world of forms. Painters create works of art that are inspired by their perceptions of the real world. Just like them, poets are imitators as well, as he discusses in his dictum Ut Pictura, Poesis. “He does not say simply that they are restricted in their vision to appearances or phantoms. He also says, explicitly, that all they are doing in producing their paintings or poems is imitating appearances or phantoms” (Gulley, 1977, p. 4). Plato claims that this imitation is fundamentally defective and incapable of capturing the actual nature of things. Imitative art, in his opinion, also carries risks since it may lead people to become overly dependent on the world of the senses and divert them from their quest for truth and knowledge.

A famous liberal British philosopher, John Stuart Mill, opposes censorship since it can limit freedom of expression and stifle creativity, yet the view of freedom that Mill supported did not appeal to everyone. On the other hand, for some people, censorship was essential. Therefore, some countries did require to censor the books or even suppress them completely. For example, a dystopian novel called Brand New World by the English writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley was banned upon its publication in Australia from 1932 to 1937 since the local authorities thought the book supposed anti-religious and anti-family values. Plato was critical about poetry and other forms of art that he saw as imitative, or mimetic, because he believed that they could be harmful to individuals and to society as a whole. Plato's view was that the world of the senses is inherently deceptive and imperfect and could not reveal the true nature of reality. He believed that the only way to access the true Forms or Ideas that exist beyond the physical world was through reason and intellectual inquiry. Thus, he demanded to censor, or ban works that include mimesis or depictions of immoral behaviors that could lead people astray.

Figure 2: "Plato" (Giordano, 1660).

Aristotle on Catharsis

Aristotle, who is considered to be one of the most influential philosophers, was born in Stagira, in northern Greece. Aristotle was a scholar and lived from 384 BC to 322 BC. He was one of Plato's most successful students, and then became a tutor to Alexander the Great. His works cover a wide range of subjects, including literature. He is a crucial figure in the development of literary criticism since "Aristotle inaugurated the systematic and distinctive discipline of literary criticism and theory with the Poetics" (Leitch, 2001, p. 86). His theory of tragedy is so influential that one of his terms, "catharsis", is used even in well-known works by Shakespeare, such as Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet.

Aristotle wrote a literary criticism book entitled Poetics, where he analyzes the elements of tragedy, its purpose, and its effect on the audience. Catharsis is one of the most significant terms in the book. The German author Eva Schaper, who was a professor of Logic at the University of Glasgow, stresses the importance of catharsis by describing it as the telos, or "ultimate goal", of tragedy. Aristotle states that catharsis is the process of emotional release and cleansing that an audience undergoes when experiencing a tragic play or performance, and it is achieved when the audience empathizes with the characters in a play or performance and feels pity and fear for them as they confront difficult situations. Thereby, according to him, tragedy cannot be fully accomplished without catharsis. In his work, Aristotle explains the importance of the steps of a tragedy in order:

Figure 3: "Aristotle with a Bust of Homer" (Rijn, 1653).

It is always the cause of action; then sentiment, because by it, the actors make an enunciation; then discourse, which is the explanation of our meaning in words; then melody, because it is most productive of pleasure; and lastly scenery. (Aristotle, ca. 335 BC/1819, p. 12)

In the quote above, Aristotle points out the way to create a successful tragedy, which is putting sentiment into action and conveying it to the audience so that the audience experiences a flood of emotions and reconciles the play with reality. Aristotle stresses the importance of emotion arising from action. According to Aristotle, there are four causes in nature: material, formal, efficient, and the final. Vincent B. Leitch (2001), Research Professor at the University of Oklahoma and the editor of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, discusses the causes that are applied in poetry:

Figure 4: "Aristotle" (Ribera, 1637).

The material cause of a poem would be its raw material language; the formal cause, the shape of the resulting object-the poem; its efficient cause, what makes it the poet; and the final cause, the end use-its effects on an audience, emotionally as well as educationally and politically (p. 88).

Aristotle not only mentions the components of a poem and play, but he also refers to mimesis with emphasis on the cause of action. His thoughts on mimesis are different from his mentor, Plato. Aristotle thinks that imitation can reveal the truth since it is more creative and are reflected actively by poets in poetry. He states that imitation takes place in every aspect of our lives and emerges naturally from childhood, and he asserts that one of the main concepts that should be used in works of art is mimesis of action since Aristotle points out the importance of imitation of action, which in his case, best form of poetry is tragedy due to the fact that it evokes feelings through action. His ideas on literature in general, gave classical critics a new perspective of mimesis, and thus, a new critical theory, Aristotelian criticism has arisen based on his ideas reflected in Poetics.

Figure 5: Roman copy in marble of a Greek bronze bust of Aristotle (Lysippos, ca. 330 BC).

Horace on Function

Without a doubt, Quintus Horatius Flaccus, also known as Horace, was one of the leading figures in classical poetry. Considered one of the most important Roman poets of the Augustan era, Horace gave many contributions to literary criticism, most significantly with his work Ars Poetica, in which he discusses the essentials of poetry to lead future poets. Even though the exact date is debatable, Ars Poetica was likely written around 19-18 BC. It is a verse epistle addressed to the Piso family, a notable Roman family with interests in poetry and literary criticism, yet to whom in that family the poem refers remains unknown. Even though it was originally written in dactylic hexameter, the piece is generally translated into prose since translating Horace's hexameter lines into rhymed couplets may reduce the subtleness and intelligence that was reflected in his work.

Horace sees art in three different ways: “as a practiced mastery of a craft, as a systematic knowledge of theory and technique, and as a capacity for objective self-criticism” (Leitch, 2001, p. 122). Therefore, to him, art or poetry should not only be aesthetically pleasing, but also provide instruction, which leads to the well-known quote of Horace, “dulce et utile", or "instruct and delight" in English. One of the key functions of poetry is decorum, which comes from the Latin word "decor", meaning "fitting" or "appropriate". His definition of structural decorum from a classicist point of view is appropriateness in any form of art requiring the poet not to break the integrity of the piece, the measure, and language of the poem, and to make them fit smoothly. One of the most significant things for decorum is not to mix unlike concepts such as literary genres and terms. In a work of art, mixing different concepts leads the reader to confusion, which clashes with the idea of appropriateness. For example, Shakespeare wrote his works in a non-Horatian way, as he combined genres in a work, such as a tragicomedy.

Figure 6: "Horace reads his poems in front of Maecenas" (Bronnikov, 1863).

Poets wish to benefit or to please, or to speak What is both enjoyable and helpful to living. When you give instruction, be brief, what’s quickly Said the spirit grasps easily, faithfully retains Everything superfluous flows out of a full mind (Horace, ca. 19 BC/2005, pp. 333-365).

In the quote above, his demand from poets is that they need to be brief and concise since, in a literary work, a person whose mind is already full of complexity would want to get rid of the confusion and look for simple but meaningful content. Thus, to avoid complication for the audience, it is necessary to cut out excessive usage of words that are hard to understand, and art should be based on appropriateness, clarity of expression, choosing a subject one is competent to write about, fitting one's language to one's subject, and conveying genuine and compelling emotion through one's verse. Horace's views on poetry led critics and writers to use Horatian criticism in their works. For example, a well-known British poet and critic Matthew Arnold was influenced by Horace and championed the values of appropriateness and simplicity in his poetry.

Figure 7: "Quintus Horatius Flaccus" (Werner, n.d.).


Overall, classicism had a great impact on literature and criticism. Plato's emphasis on moral and intellectual value when he demanded censorship of literature influenced later literary movements, such as the Enlightenment and Romanticism. However, Plato's influence on literary theory was not always appreciated. Many critics have defended the broadness of literature and freedom of expression. While his ideas are debatable for authors, his student Aristotle's ideas are still commonly used and appreciated. Many playwrights, including Shakespeare, have benefited from Aristotle's catharsis, and the audience had a whole new perspective and psychological experience while watching tragic plays since the fundamental aim of tragedy is to convey a feeling or horror by the reflections of life. Additionally, Horace's idea of decorum is highly used by authors; for example, in Elizabethan prose moral appropriateness was crucial. Classical literary theory and criticism have shaped literature for future generations. Moreover, literary critiques gained different perspectives and analyzed literary works through a classical lens.

Bibliographical References

Aristotle. (ca. 335 BC). Poetics (L. Golden, Trans.). G. & W.B. Whittaker. (1819).

Brewton, V. (n.d.). Literary theory. University of North Alabama

Gulley, N. (1977). Plato on Poetry. Greece & Rome, 24(2), 154–169.

Horace. (ca. 19 BC). Ars Poetica or: epistle to the Pisos. (S. Kline, Trans.). Poetry in Translation (2005).

Leitch, B, V. (2001). The Norton anthology of theory and criticism. W. W. Norton & Company.

Schaper, E. (1968). Aristotle’s catharsis and aesthetic pleasure. The Philosophical Quarterly (1950-), 18(71), 131–143.

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Zişan Doğdu

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